Filled Under: mechanical engineering

Water-Based Tractor Beam Could Confine Oil Spills, Control Floating Objects

This Water-Based Tractor Beam Could Confine Oil Spills, Control Floating Objects


We may be one step closer to building a real-life tractor beam.

Scientists in Australia have developed a water-based tractor beam, and while it’s not exactly the marvel made famous by “Star Trek,” it’s pretty darn impressive. It can control water flow patterns, maneuver floating objects and could even help confine oil spills.

A tractor beam is a popular term which, I think it captures quite well the basic principal,” lead researcher Dr. Horst Punzmann, an engineer at the Australian National University in Canberra, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “You put an object there and it propagates, it floats backwards to the source of the wave.”

And Punzmann and his team were able to do much more than make an object change course and travel backward.

“We’ve managed to manipulate floating objects to move toward the wave, to move in the direction of the wave or to keep them stationary in the flow,” Punzmann explains in a video released by the university (see above). It shows researchers using the wave-manipulation device to steer a ping-pong ball around a tank.

To manipulate the ball, researchers first determined the size and frequency of the waves required to move it. Then they observed the surface movement produced by the waves.

“We found that above a certain height, these complex three-dimensional waves generate flow patterns on the surface of the water,” Dr. Michael Shats, a professor in the university’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, said in a written statement.

Shats added that existing mathematical theories cannot describe the currents produced by the larger waves.

“It’s one of the great unresolved problems, yet anyone in the bathtub can reproduce it,” he said. “We were very surprised no one had described it before.”

While the water-based tractor beam is new, Punzmann’s team is not the first to propose the idea of a working tractor beam. NASA previously awarded scientists a $100,000 grant to investigate particle-moving technology.

And in 2012, researchers in Singapore detailed how a special type of laser, called a Bessel beam, might be used to push an object backward toward the beam’s point of origin. In 2013, a team in Scotland debuted a working prototype capable of moving minuscule particles.

The new research was published in the August 2014 edition of the journal Nature Physics.


Meet the Starship Enterprise of the Sea

A French architect’s audacious plans for a ship that will change the ocean exploration is done.


Garnering comparisons to Star Trek’s starship Enterprise, the SeaOrbiter is the brainchild of French architect Jacques Rougerie. Set to begin construction this spring, the 190-foot-tall semisubmersible vessel will be the culmination of nearly 30 years of Rougerie’s research and development.

Six of the SeaOrbiter’s 12 floors are below sea level, allowing for uninterrupted underwater observation. Although the ship’s main mission is to research the biodiversity and climate of the sea, the real goal for Rougerie is to give the public a better understanding of how crucial the ocean is to Earth’s well-being.

Ninety-nine percent of the $50 million project was financed through the French government and private companies. To get people more involved, Rougerie is crowdfunding the last 1 percent of the project. “The more humans understand about the underwater world, the more respect they will have for it,” he says.

22 People: Number the SeaOrbiter can host. The ship will carry a mix of scientists and crew members.

Quite a View: ‘We want people to appropriate the project to themselves,” says Rougerie. Which is why he raised money through KissKissBankBank, a French crowdsourcing website, to fund construction of the Eye of the SeaOrbiter. Equivalent to a ship’s crow’s nest, the Eye towers 60 feet above the surface. It serves as a lookout and houses a communications system that lets the crew send live broadcasts of life on board.

Hard at Work: Keeping busy won’t be a problem for the crew. The “modular lab” can be used as a laboratory for scientists as well as a fitness room equipped with treadmills. The lab also includes a medical zone. A certified doctor with basic surgery skills will be on board in the event of an emergency.

2,600 Tons Displacement: The overall weight of the ship. It is built from 500 tons of Sealium, a recyclable aluminum designed for marine environments.

A Life Aquatic: Given that voyages will last three to six months, there will be ample time to collect data and perform experiments. The underwater area, known as the hyperbaric lab, is equipped with an observation deck made of transparent polycarbonate panels, allowing for direct underwater observation. Because the conditions underwater are similar to those in space in terms of pressure and isolation, the SeaOrbiter will be used by NASA and ESA (the European equivalent) for protocol training as well as physiological and psychological experiments.

Go With the Flow: The SeaOrbiter was designed primarily to float along with the ocean’s natural currents, allowing scientists to study the relationship between those currents and climate. The keel weighs 180 tons and helps provide stability to the ship. It can be retracted when the vessel is in shallow water.

5 Ships: The total number of SeaOrbiters Rougerie eventually hopes to build, one to sail in each of Earth’s oceans. A number of partners have given their support to the SeaOrbiter project, including National Geographic and UNESCO.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
From the March 2014 issue of Inc. magazine

Wal-Mart’s Future Fleet of Transformers

Wal-Mart’s Future Fleet of Transformers

By Jennifer Booton

Next in Tech
Published April 04, 2014

walmart concept semi truck

Amazon’s (AMZN
AMAZON.COM INC.) drone messengers can step aside — Wal-Mart (WMT) has unveiled its fleet of the future, and it looks a lot like an army of Transformers.

From its sleek sliding doors, centered driver’s seat that bears a liking to a captain’s chair on a spaceship, to the monitors that stick out from both sides of the dashboard like antennas, the fleet has a futuristic feel that is different from the 18-wheelers on the road today.

“We’ve built technology trucks” with “potentially game-changing technologies,” said Elizabeth Fretheim, Wal-Mart’s director of logistics sustainability.

With a trailer for the first time built almost exclusively of carbon fiber, the hybrid-powered aerodynamic prototype designed by truck manufacturer Peterbilt is 4,000 pounds lighter than Wal-Mart’s existing trucks. It also boasts fully-customizable screens, providing drivers the ability to monitor performance gauges in real time.

Yet, truck engineers say this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the future, heavy trucks might even be able to drive themselves.

Autonomous Semis

Stricter federal regulations on emissions and engine innovation have helped improve fuel efficiency over the last decade, but now research is starting to pour into making these massive fleets autonomous.

Ted Scott, director of engineering for the American Truck Association, says there are some emerging technologies coming down the road that could “significantly change this industry.”

Imagine a couple of 18-wheelers driving nose-to-tail on the highway — or “platooning” — braking and accelerating simultaneously in a fluid motion that could help reduce road congestion, optimize fuel efficiency and improve safety and delivery times.

“Heavy trucks don’t have accidents often, but when they do they’re catastrophic.”

– David Bevly, Auburn University Engineering Professor

It is similar to the investments being made by the likes of Google (GOOG) and BMW for passenger cars. And much like how the U.S. Department of Transportation is expecting to one day require all passenger vehicles to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication, David Bevly, a professor in the University of Auburn’s Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, says he expects similar rules to soon apply to trucks.

Under these emerging technologies, semis would be able to virtually communicate with one another without human intervention, possibly cutting out the need for human drivers altogether.

Studies have already proven the feasibility from an engineering perspective, and now the University of Auburn is looking to test the logistics through a multi-layered research project that will culminate next spring with a physical test on the university’s 1.7-mile track.

“We’re specifically focused on the practicality of it all, beyond just the technology,” said Bevly, the lead researcher on Auburn’s platooning project.

Peterbilt, which is being consulted on the project, has been using automatic braking systems for a few years already. It is now investing heavily in driver assist technologies that it says would serve as the first steps to platooning, and perhaps one-day, to completely autonomous semis.

Cost and Safety

The demand from fleet operators is there because of the potential for significant fuel cost savings.

Advanced aerodynamics like the ones debuted in the Wal-Mart prototype are expected to improve fuel economy by “at least” 10%, according to Bill Kahn, Peterbilt Manager of Advanced Concepts. Bevly says platooning could add another 10% or more on top of that.

“A huge amount of innovation in the truck industry has been driven by fuel economy benefits and safety improvements. Truck platooning gives you both,” said Richard Bishop, an industry liaison consultant to Auburn.

Another benefit is its improved safety. Regular people who drive compact cars might shudder at the thought of several 18-wheelers traveling just a few feet apart at 60 miles per hour. However, supporters would argue that some truckers already drive dangerously close together in an effort to reap air drafting benefits. Robotic trucks, they’d say, are safer because they can react much quicker than a human can.

“Heavy trucks don’t have accidents often, but when they do they’re catastrophic,” Bevly said.

Of course, a big challenge remains the cost to make these enormous upgrades.

A tractor is turned over every five to six years, according to Scott, so the return on investment must outweigh the price of ensuring the technology, brakes and accelerators are compatible for platooning.

Scott says he doesn’t think platooning will be widespread in the industry. Rather, it will likely have its place, possibly among big brands like Wal-Mart that ship dozens of trailers at once to the same region.

Wal-Mart, with its 4,700 U.S. retail facilities and whopping $274 billion in worldwide revenues, is hoping its next-generation trucks set a precedent.

While the prototype it unveiled last week does not have autonomous capabilities, the major investment in truck innovation by the world’s largest retailer could trigger a much-needed overhaul of the multi-billion-dollar trucking industry.

“At the prototype level it’s quite mature, it works,” Bishop said.

Follow Jennifer Booton on Twitter at @Jbooton